Barack Obama announced sweeping immigration reform on Thursday night that will allow as many as five million undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation, potentially keeping millions of families together. The President bypassed Congress to take executive action just weeks before Republicans take control of both the House and the Senate in January.
Speaking in a prime time address, Obama told the story of a girl named Astrid. Brought illegally to the U.S. when she was four, she worked hard to learn English and is currently in college, earning her third degree. "Are we a nation that kicks out a striving young woman like Astrid?" He asked. "Or, are we a nation who lets her in?"
Under the new plan, immigrants who've been in the U.S. for more than five years and whose children are citizens or legal residents can apply for reprieve from deportation — people like Astrid's parents. "If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," the President said.
Before tonight, undocumented families lived with not only the fear of deportation, but of having their families broken apart, because the children of undocumented workers born here are citizens, but their parents could still be sent home. The plan also grants relief to children who were brought to the U.S. illegally before they were six years old — which is estimated to affect more than 250,000 kids.
The measure also limits the number of people eligible for deportation, in order to focus more resources on gangs, drug trafficking, and border violence.
However, the plan does not offer a path to citizenship, which was part of a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill that hasn't been able to clear Congress. Nor does it offer many of the benefits of full citizenship: Immigrants will be ineligible for insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, or Social Security retirement benefits.
The President said he chose to act now since a comprehensive immigration bill, which passed the Senate in 2013, has been unable to get through the Republican-dominated House for more than a year. With Republicans taking control of the Senate and strengthening their hold on the House, it seems even less likely to be passed by the new Congress.
Republicans have sharply criticized the President's unilateral action, accusing him of "poisoning the well" for future bipartisan cooperation.
Obama's move is not without precedent. Both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush took similar executive actions that granted amnesty to illegal immigrants.